Product Doctor Diagnoses – OTA 2012

Alex Craxton visits the Product Doctor Surgery

Here’s the report from this year’s Product Doctor Drop in Surgery at OTA 2012.

Another interesting range of products; from making a good old phone call, through to tracking housekeeping budget, m-health to enhanced status posting and finishing with around the world travel.

From what I saw in the surgeries, a few trends were certainly coming through:

  • incorporation of scanning technology
  • the continued growth of products to support social networking status posting
  • m-health becoming a reality
  • increased adoption of value added mobile services by the corporate market
  • revenue models from businesses rather than individual spend

Diagnosis hinged around some familiar threads –

Tom Hume drops in to talk shop

1). End User Validation– making sure that user insights are gathered at concept phase and continued user testing continues. The point, as always, is that this is not just usability testing, but testing that the overall concept you have.  Identifying user need and desire, supporting revenue models and product feature set all need to be validated before you go and build your product.

2). Ensure it is a Genuine End User – friends, family, established business contacts and friendly existing customers do not count – they don’t want to upset you.  Remember also, that you are not representative of an entire segment – building something on your own needs is not validation.

Please see “DIY User Engagement” for more guidance.

Paul Moutray gets medical

3). Revenue Modelling – Really think hard about where the pots of money are; this year there was more talk about collecting and providing customer information to brands and generating sales leads for brands.  In this climate and market, a product really has to be amazing for an end user to want to pay for it.

4). Know your competition – make sure you understand who is vying for your customer money or attention.  Think hard about what you think you are selling and question whether it is already being provided today.

5). Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Technology brings many new opportunities and there are some very clever developers out there, but please check out the commercial bases before you give up your job and start building a new product.

There are a couple of other points that struck me this year. I thought about how useful it could be for my patients to hear each others session. Some have experience in areas that others have not and that “share” could have been helpful.  Tying this together with some feedback last year that this felt more like “product therapy”, I am wondering about running group surgeries next year…

Nail your Launch Strategy at an early stage!

Last week I mentored 13 start ups in 2 days at Start Up Weekend Education London (#swel) and at Ignite100, where Katrina and I ran a Product Doctor Drop In Surgery for the teams in Newcastle.  One of the consistent themes was that teams were not thinking about their Launch Strategy early enough. If you read the below, you will see how important it is to do so and how it needs to be considered during the Product Development phase rather than aftewards.

Diagnosis: Your product feels like all things to all people
This can be a dangerous position as it is difficult to focus in a way that enables you to understand who your end users are. This distance between the product and its end users is likely to result in feature overload, lack of clarity in the product description, product positioning and launch plan which will ultimately limit your success.

Feature overload increases your time to market. The more features, the longer the product development time, the longer the testing time is and the longer the fix period. It also adds time to future development time as regression testing takes longer.

Lack of clarity in the product description, product positioning and launch plan may not “speak” to end users in their language as you don’t know what language they speak. If they don’t feel targeted it will be more difficult to get them interested in your product.

Then the million dollar question: “How are you going to drive traffic to your site?” If you don’t know who you are targeting, how can you possibly work out how to drive traffic?  Of course everyone talks about the industry press and blogs – but will this reach your target group?

Treatment:
Be really good in one area first. Consider organising your product roadmap around product launches to different sectors / areas, each backed up with a tailored feature set.

Work closely with your end user target segment to not only establish the feature set but also develop ideas for product positioning and launch tactics.

For your initial launch, select an industry sector / area that you have some connection to already. Either you have worked within it, or you already have contacts who you can get close to, giving you access to end users to engage in the ways described above throughout the development process.

You can show your product feature list to users (worded in user-friendly language of course) and have them put the features in order of desirability. Ask them not to rate any features that they are not interested in.  You should see some consensus forming quickly as long as you have defined your target segment well. You can also get them to indicate where the features are a hygiene factor (they just must be there) vs something that feels it is different to the competition. Note that it is not who you think your competition is, but who your users think your competition is.

Cross tab this feature list against a scale of how easy / difficult the product is to deliver (Scrum processes involving points to show this is advised). Cross tab this further with some benchmarking and make sure that the sector / area you choose does not already have a popular solution. Ensure that you work with end users to establish where any competitors are strong and weak. Establish your product feature set and positioning around these insights.

For more tips on “DIY User Engagement”, see my previous blogpost.

DIY User Engagement

Me, Katrina Damianou and one of our patients: Ketan Majmudar at the Product Doctor Surgery, OTA 2011. Photo courtesy of the fabulous Paul Clarke - paulclarke.com

This year at Over the Air in Bletchley Park, Katrina and I set up a Product Doctor Drop in Surgery offering 25 minute complimentary sessions. On a scorching couple of days, we set up outside and were happy to have a continual stream of patients, including the wonderful @Documentally and @Bookmeister.

Listening carefully, as we always preach, we are considering next year calling it “Product Therapy” as the sessions seemed to have a cathartic effect!

Rather than blogging a long post, here are the contents and the full paper is available for download below.

  1. It is never too early (or too late) to engage end users
  2. What do you show users?
  3. How to find your end users
  4. Can you have the conversation with end users?
  5. How to begin the conversation
  6. Write a test script
  7. “I can’t explain what my product does”
  8. Showing a prototype
  9. Testing for usability
  10. Keep checking back with users as you develop and improve each new feature
  11. Build and test your product before developing your brand
  12. Be honest with yourself as to why you are developing the App
I hope you find this useful and as always, please do get in touch or leave comments below.

Creating learning opportunities for young people through user centred design

I was invited to speak about Designing Products & Propositions for the Youth Market by Luke Mitchell of Reach Students at “Youth Marketing Stategy 2011″.

There was an interesting mix of speakers covering the youth market from a number of different perspectives; ranging from insights, marketing and creative agencies, community management and viral marketing to universities and graduate recruiters. This was a great place to share my insights about the youth market and to encourage all these players in the youth space to create learning opportunities for young people through their projects.

Here is the presentation that I gave. It gives many examples of how I have engaged young people in the design of youth products and the value that created for the producers.

Here are some further highlights from the day:

Understanding Youth Tribes – a new way to look at youth segmentation
This visual was created by a teenage boy who was asked to describe his local neighbourhood.  This was shown by Neil Taylor & Joe Beck from Channel 4.  This insight inspired their UK Tribes research on youth segmentation, insights and motivations and is definitely worth a read.
Here are the main tribes that they went on to identify through further interviews with young people.

Educational Institutions

Brunel University showed how social media can be used in educational institutions.  They had run focus groups to get some initial insights.  Great opportunity here for one of my pleas… run co-design sessions with students and the project team.  Start by sharing the intended business objectives and benefits. Move on to exploring and identifying the user benefits with the students and then to brainstorming user stories (Scrum reference) as you go.  “As a user I would like to ….. so that …”  Then co-design the user experience of products, systems and processes together.

For me, traditional “focus groups” are often not focussed enough.

  • The participants feel like the fish being watched in the bowl so are often not natural in their behaviour.  Smash down those viewing gallery windows and get the client in the room!
  • Participants feel that the researcher is wanting a particular answer and the session will often become a “guess the right answer” game.
  • Before going to research, the researcher / client will usually have done quite a lot of work designing the proposition based on assumed user needs – so save time and get in with the user early on to test any assumptions from the start.
  • Often clients will take the output of a focus group and months later, they may return and test out their solutions.  No! Keep going back – preferably every 2 weeks, within a scrum structure, and get users to sign off what has been developed as you go. Again, this will save time, money and effort.

Helen Pennack, Head of Marketing & Communications,  University of Leicester is an award-winning marketer who has been developing a portal and integrated social media marketing plan to both attract potential students and provide support to existing students at Leicester University.  She heavily engaged end users in the design and the community management of the portal. Another one that is worth a look and another way to help young people develop their real life skills and CV build as they go.

Not going to Uni!

Spencer Mehlman of notgoingtouni.co.uk provided a particularly refreshing and pragmatic alternative view to graduating and not finding a job.  Here is the leading paragraph from their website which says it all: “…So you’re thinking about not going to uni. Congratulations! You’ve just proved that you’re not afraid to think differently. Contrary to what the masses may say, university isn’t the only path to success. From apprenticeships to debt-free learning, there are literally thousands of other opportunities out there…”

Do Students Matter in Youth Marketing?

Ben Marks and Melanie Cohen of Opinion Panel gave some good reasons to engage students:

1. It is a population that’s large enough to matter

2. They are enthusiastic early adopters who take products viral

3. Student trends have always lead the way

4. Today’s students are tomorrow’s wealthy citizens and opinion leaders

Opinion Panel run online real-time moderated focus groups. The benefits of this method are that groups can be run with users from different locations and that many insights come from the conversation between users rather than those between moderator and respondent.  Trick here is to make sure that this is an appropriate method for the key questions that you have.  A good researcher will gain a huge amount of insight by looking in to the respondents’ eyes – some questions will always need to be face to face.

James Eder from Studentbeans.com gave a very engaging talk on how they have the largest student subscriber base in the UK for research through their special discounts and offers incentives. They work with many brands to solicit student opinion.  Again, this is online.

And for a great finish…

Get Tom Scott to speak at your event – I cannot think of anyone that could help your event finish on such a big high. Google him for examples of his viral successes. Importantly, he encourages us to try lots of different approaches, not to settle on one. This way we have more chance of succeeding.

All in all this was a good conference and I hope that Luke does another one!  As with all conferences, not all the sessions were useful for everyone as it was quite diverse around the sector, but there certainly are possibilities for them all to create real life learning experiences for young people and I hope that they do.


Please start with the User Need!

Last week I went to App Circus in London, sponsored by Nuance (@AlexCraxton was there) and BlueVia (@jamesparton and @bookmeister), to hear developers pitch their Apps for the chance to win a slot to be nominated for the 2012 Mobile Premier Awards at Mobile World Congress 2012.

I have seen many Apps pitched and it always bemuses me quite how many do not start with or even include proof of the user need; be that the pain point that they are addressing and / or a way to significantly improve the user experience of something that they already do.

The winner of this round was Masabi – “The ticket machine in your pocket” where “…UK rail travellers can now check train times and book tickets from almost any mobile phone – no complex sign-up required…”  I have seen the effervescent Ben Whitaker (@Benmasabi – Founder), present this product before and he is enjoying some well deserved success as the product is now live with many rail operators in a number of different countries.  Masabi addresses a real user need, vastly improving the user experience of buying train tickets, who no longer need to stand in line, and in turn providing brownie points to the rail operators that have signed up.  Listen to Ben and how he starts with the user need, and how lively this crowd was (after a few beers as the marvellous @Jorabin pointed out to me!)

Conclusion is to make sure that you are addressing a real user need as you develop your clever Apps.  If you are going to pitch your App, start with your user insights. If you don’t have user insights, go get them!  You can read more in an earlier post on this blog: Advice for Developers from my Product Doctor Drop In Surgery, OTA 2010.

Product Doctor has a number of innovative formats to help bring user insights to your business, product, conference or event.  Please feel free to contact me for more information. 

Social Innovation insights at Central St Martins

I was invited by Dr Jamie Brassett, Innovation Management MA Course Director at Central St Martins to join a panel all about Social Innovation.  I was joined on the panel by Professor Lorraine Gamman and Kate Oakley PhD.  At this point, I also want to add my LLB letters to my name!  It was the inaugural “Insights Exchange” on issues of Social Innovation/Enterprise & Public sector and the new concept was to mix up the academic with the non academic practitioners.  It was attended by 1st and 2nd year Innovation Management MA students and some other interesting and interested people!

The insights I talked about and suggestions I made are based on my experience directing the Space Makers Brixton Market project Nov ’09 – Nov ’10.

1. Stakeholders – When working on a community project, like Brixton Village, the stakeholder has a broader definition that just those you would expect. They also become apparent as you progress through the project.  I was pleased when I opened this question out to the Innovation Management students that they included shoppers, present and future, to be stakeholders too.  Many of us have a public place we feel to be “our” place – it may for example be somewhere that has family meaning for us.  So true of Brixton Market. You will also find local self-organised groups that are also working on community-focussed projects that become apparent as time progresses.  Realise also that your continual communication with your (loosely termed) stakeholders actually needs to work for those that are digital and those that are not.

Physical paper Poster

2. Identify the Benefits and Beneficiaries – Again, this will evolve as you go through the project.  List out all the benefits that different groups could get from the project.  This is important in helping to communicate to people why they might want to be involved; to turn around those that may be resisting change and will set a clear vision for all those that get involved with the overall project.

3. Open Source – Embrace the diversity that throwing the gates open can bring.  I do not remember turning away any pop up activities other than for health and safety reasons or those that were in direct competition with projects in units, such as food stalls. Another example is the open meetings that we held every Tuesday night in the local pub (Dougald’s brain-child response to the sheer amount of people that were contacting us to be involved), so that anyone who wanted to get involved with activities in the market could come along. There were many collaborations formed and events curated through this.  It also brings in additional resource; people were happy to dip and out and the overall project benefited hugely from extra pairs of hands to make the space really unusual and inclusive.

4. Basic Structures – Hand in hand with the open source idea are basic structures that allow for creativity and innovation to flourish.  Yes, you need some basic rules but we were careful to keep these minimal – give people enough so that they are comfortable to experiment in the space. No idea is a bad idea and we do not know failure!  This way, the project could again, evolve, learn what worked and what could be improved upon.  An example of a basic structure was this Performance Zone that was put in place on the forecourt to encourage passing performers.

Basic Structures - Encouraging open and safe participation

5. Documentation – All community projects have loads they can teach to help other projects.  I encourage people to be open about what works, what doesn’t work and to make that publicly available throughout the live project, rather than waiting to the end. With a constant and fast moving project, you probably will already be working on improvements when you receive the feedback and it is good to show your awareness.  Take lots of photographs – great for photography student projects, and we were lucky enough to have the wonderful Andy Broomfield helping us out.  Document your processes, again, so they can be re-used by others.

6. Develop a thick skin! There will always be people that do not like change.  Some of those will work with you once you have understood their angle and they understand how in fact the project can also work to help their cause. Others never will.

For those that know the Digital Youth Project mission, you will know my view that that these projects create fantastic learning experiences for young people and I always encourage getting young people involved – the benefits they bring to a project can be huge.  You can read more about youth involvement in the Brixton Market project here.

The discussion that followed was most interesting – I picked up all sorts of new terminology and there were some heated discussions. Here was the buzz that I got; understanding the different types of social innovation; wicked social problems; how social innovation is now a label that many existing institutions are adoptin; the impact of political context on social innovation projects; how to ensure ongoing sustainability; how to measure success; accountability; how social values are exchanged, fraternalism and SO MUCH MORE!  I want to do that course!

Here is sound-bite from Jamie and one of the students:

Credits:

Katrina Damianou – who was instrumental in the Brixton project as part of her work placement from Central last year.

Andy Broomfield for fabulous photos

Please feel free to get in touch if you would like some Product Doctor advice for social innovation, community building and youth real life learning experience projects.

Digital Youth Insights & Learning Experiences Webinar

This is a webinar, that I did for the DCK TN and Mobile Monday London, 27th Jan 2011, and should be of interest to people that want a closer understanding of the youth market.  Through my experience in mobile and online community products since 1993, despite much time, effort and cost, I have seen many products fail to succeed or fail to reach their full potential. One of the key reasons is that end users are not engaged in their development. I set up the Digital Youth Project in 2005 to address this gap focussing on the youth market and to show how engaging young people in your projects can provide great real life learning experiences for them too. I illustrate the points using case studies from virtual world to mobile to community projects with a social media twist.

Thanks to those that logged in live, for my 4.5/5 rating and for the great feedback! It was a fun new experience talking to the aether!

Please click on this link to view and listen - you will need to register but it is free:  Webinar DCKTN / Mobile Monday London.

Here is the presentation, without me talking over it, and some of the key points listed below.

Key Youth Insights– see presentation for the case studies that support each point

1. Young people are practical & they want useful products too

  • Some adults incorrectly equate youth products only with fun; my case studies show that young people need and appreciate helpful products too, such as mobile mapping services.
  • In addition, young people can quickly tell you where your product is not practical – for example, they are worried about the security aspects of wandering around holding their phone and whether your service can be fully appreciated on a small screen.
  • They also want product naming to effectively describe the product – so say what it does on the tin.

2. Hygiene factors – what is now expected by young people as standard, basic features

  • Young people want choice, so for example if you are developing a music-based App, make sure that you have as many genres in there as you can.
  • They want to be able to use services on their mobile, pc and other devices such as i-Pod so multi-platform and channel access is important.
  • They are so familiar with certain user interfaces, for example, the Apple Store, so where you can, work with their understanding rather than feeling you need to create something different.
  • Time over I see that young people will dive straight in to using the product. They want to work it out for themselves – that is part of the fun, however, that is no excuse for creating something that is not intuitive.  If you are going to add help, first time tutorials can be effective, as long as they are interactive; making help information concise is essential and males have a tendency to look to YouTube for short videos.
  • Social functions are now expected. Facebook is the benchmark for being able to share, comment and converse.
  • Voice, text and camera are now the basic expectations of a phone.

3. Young people want to help with feature definition & market positioning

  • Before creating your visual presence, talk to young people and ask them how they would use the product; again, you will see case studies of where using the wrong visual will throw the user off track.
  • I have worked with many products where the functionality is fantastic, but the wrong user facing product has been developed – young people are very good at un-packing the functionality and putting it back together again in a more attractive proposition.
  • Competitor analysis, as we know, is crucial before you can work out your feature set and positioning; young people will tell you who they think your competitors are, which is far more valuable than who you think they are!

4. Young people need to be addressed with the right language for their age group

  • When considering the youth market, I suggest 2 year increments; 11-13, 13 – 15 and so on. I have found that your actual users will be those that are in the age increment below the one that you are targeting – young people are often trying to appear to be older than they are.
  • It is also important to realise that there is a lot of cross-generational traffic on sites that are populated by young people – particularly in the virtual world, social networking and gaming scenarios.  Aunties, uncles, godparents, grandparents, older siblings – particularly when they are remote – will engage with their younger contacts in their own environment.

5. Young people are savvy, so be honest, satisfy their curiosity and gain their trust

  • When presented with a new product, often a young person’s response is to think “where is the catch”, so if you have chargeable elements; sponsored content; integrated advertising and so on, just be upfront about it. This way you will show your respect for their intelligence and gain their trust.

6. While they are financially aware, this does not mean that they won’t spend money on digital experiences

  • There are already plenty of online and mobile experiences that young people enjoy for free – so there is no point presenting them with a similar experience that is chargeable.
  • However, young people are spending money on digital – as I found when looking at digital music products “who do you think got Tinchy Stryder to the top of the download charts?” Note also that digital goods revenue lines are still in growth.

7. Young people are social media natives, they can help you create content and awareness for your product, business and business event

  • You can offer great learning experiences for young people to help you understand how best to use social media to generate awareness and social media coverage of your business, project and events.
  • Media students are on the look-out for real life projects where they can provide media coverage for you whilst adding to their portfolio – think photographs, film, interviews and general journalistic comment.
  • If you are looking for creative content perhaps to add some spark to an event, think about offering an opportunity to young people’s arts and performance groups.

Adult Misperceptions

Throughout my work in this area I have come across some resistance from adults to engaging young people, so here are my challenges back:

  1. Young people are scary and they will automatically take a negative stance: Incorrect! Young people are encouraging about innovation and willing to take risks. You will find working with them energising.
  2. They just grunt – think Kevin the Teenager: Incorrect! Explain, listen, coach and ask open questions in the right environment – you will get very constructive feedback.
  3. You have just chosen the clever kids to work with: Incorrect! Great feedback does not just come from clever kids – often the most disruptive and under-achieving have the most creative and honest input.
  4. “What young people want is…”: Incorrect! Avoid generalising about the youth market – some just call and text; they don’t all have blackberries, they don’t all want an iPhone, and the list goes on.

In conclusion, by engaging users in the design of products and marketing, you will become more efficient. You will know when you have a dead horse to stop flogging; you can avoid endless internal assumption-based debates on features and user interface; you can generate new challenging ideas; you can get a good idea of how best to target the youth market and overall maximise your development and marketing spend.

Please do get in touch if you would like these insights presented at your business or event.

Advice for Developers – Product Doctor Diagnoses (OTA 2010)

This year at Over the Air 2010 (OTA) I set up a Drop In Product Surgery for mobile developers, which focused on how to make their products more commercially successful.  OTA is a two day grass-roots mobile developers event which is in its third year and offers an interesting schedule of keynote speakers (Sir Tim Berners-Lee headlined this year), sessions, panels, workshops and competitions for the all-night hack-a-thon.  This is a really unique event with a great atmosphere; it also presents an opportunity to try out new ideas and work on them alongside some amazingly clever people.

OTA Hacking in the Great Hall, London Imperial.

Here are some of the most common prescriptions that I wrote at the surgeries.

1. Talk to your end users, early and often

  • It is NEVER too early to talk to end users – you don’t need to wait for a prototype – start with the concept
  • You can check that your assumptions about their current behaviour are correct
  • You can try to discover pressure points that need solutions
  • If you have a great piece of functionality, get end users together to help you “productise” it – if the user session is properly facilitated you can get them to build the range of potential propositions for you
  • Even if you have already imagined or built a product, you still shouldn’t be afraid to do the above; let users to strip it back to its functionality and see what propositions they come up with
  • Users can also help you prioritise your feature list – this helps get the user angle in to your roadmap
  • There is nothing stopping you engaging with your end users now – just go and mingle – if you think people will use your product at the bus stop, then go and talk to people at bus stops!

In every user group that I have run over the years, I have always been surprised by the reactions and suggestions that come up.  It is crucial that users are involved in the process from concept through to launch and beyond, to ensure continuous improvement of the product.  Think of how many innovations fail – and the cost that gets sunk in to development.  Try to understand your end users as well as you can; get them to help you to define the key benefits and how are you going to communicate your message.  This theme re-occurs again and again throughout this post!

2. Size your market & know your competition

  • Size your market opportunity – this will help to inform your initial commercial viability and validate assumptions on your revenue forecasts
  • Think about the different end user segments for your product – who is going to use your product? (again, this is where end user input can be crucial)
  • Do your competitor analysis; write up your SWOT analysis and that of your competitors. It will help you to focus on what you are – and are not – and to find your competitive advantage.
  • Ask yourself what you have that is special. Unique can be perceived in many different ways – it may be that your user experience is unique although the functionality is not.  Perhaps you have a special route to market that will help you to reach your end users
  • If you can’t believe why your idea has not been done before, research it fully – you may learn why it has never been brought to market

3. Define your product

  • Avoid feature over-load.   Can you define your features and corresponding benefits in 3 bullet points? Find the real jewels in your offering and focus on them. You can save yourself time and money
  • Be aware of taking on the giants. For example, if your product is offering photo uploads as part of the offering, from a user perspective you may actually be competing with Flickr!
  • Getting people to change their behaviour is very difficult. Think through what you are asking people to do and whether there is already an established way of doing it
  • Think carefully about creating a new community – how can you plug in to online communities that already exist? Building and managing a community is a significant piece of work with ongoing overheads. If your product is dependant on that community remember that it can take years to build up
  • People now want to have conversations. There are growing numbers of people that want to engage with products, be that just by reading or making comments or sharing their opinions with their friends on social networks. Where this is appropriate for your product, do consider building in these features. This is a core part of the product design and it will delegate some of the marketing effort to your users

4. Recycle!

  • Think about what technology you already have built – before you shelve it, talk to users and think about the scenarios where it could be “productised”

5. Consider your routes to market

  • Are you going direct? Are you going to have the resources to build and execute a marketing plan yourselves – and set up the customer support function?
  • How will you drive people to find your App in the App store?  Research ways of  “DIY PR” (Lisa Devaney & Lauren McGregor) to get the best value!
  • Do you have some functionality that could be really useful to an existing brand? Again, this is another great example where end users can help you to identify how their existing brand experiences could be improved by what you have to offer
  • User insights can really help to strengthen a pitch. “We have run insights workshops with these different segments, and here are prototypes that have come out of that”
  • Which brands are in a highly competitive market and have some money to spend? Many brands want to be “in mobile” but they don’t quite know how to weave this channel in to their offering

Closing Comments

It was an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to work with some really talented developers.  I hope that I helped them think through some of the more commercial and user-focused elements.

I was also proto-typing the “Product Doctor is in” event format.  The name “Product Doctor” and the offer of “Product Surgeries” worked well as a short-hand descriptor and there was a clear understanding of what the appointments were for.  At 25 minutes long, the appointments were convenient and accessible for event attendees.  Although the OTA event environment is informal, these sessions felt quite formal – as it is with any doctor.  This level of formality meant that the conversations were very focused and in 25 minutes, we could diagnose and identify some treatment.  The feedback from my patients was that I had them looking through a totally different lens.  I hope they will take their medicine!

Finally, thanks to Katrina Damianou for helping to develop the concept; Flora Gordon for spreading the word; my patients for being great guinea pigs and above all, the OTA Team – Helen Keegan and Daniel Appelquist in particular for letting me experiment!

Brixvill – An experimental platform for young people

Back in August 2009, I spotted a posting on the online Space Makers Network from a Lambeth Council officer who was interested in doing something creative with empty shops.  I grabbed Dougald Hine, the founder of Space Makers, and went down to meet him.  That was how we came to be introduced and was introduced to the property owners of Brixton Village indoor market (formerly Granville Arcade) who had 20 empty units that they were struggling to rent.

The first time we visited the market I broke out in goosebumps as my body tingled with possibilities and that was how I became the Project Director, working with Space Makers to bring this wonderful space back to life along with an equally wonderful and inspiring team – Katrina Damianou and Flora Gordon.

left to right - Katrina, me and Flora

What an incredible atmosphere created by the beauty of the 1930s build and the echoes of its glory days, with the sharp contrast between the empty parts of the market vs the busy parts that bustled with shops selling meat, fish, toiletries, wigs, specialist grocers and restaurants.  From the start, it was important to us to make sure that the existing tenants would also benefit from the additional footfall that the new projects would bring.

First, a competition for 3 months rent free was launched at a Space Exploration Night in November ’09 – 5 applications for every available space were received and by mid December the first tranche of creative, community and enterprising projects were up and running. There have been a series of temporary and test trade projects in the units ever since and 9 months later all of 20 the empty units have been permanently rented – success!

Space Exploration Night - mid November 2009. (left to right) Gail Rowe of Lambeth Council; Dan Thompson founder of the Empty Shops Network, Steph Butcher - the fabulous Brixton Town Centre Director, Matt Western of Space Makers, Dougald Hine founder of Space Makers, Me addressing the 350 strong crowd, Mike, Nicola & Neil of LAP - the market's owners. (Thanks to Sara Haq for photo).

This project was always about the longer term sustainability of the market and bringing it back to its former glory as a key destination for the communit. The vision was to make it not just a home for trade, but also a place to see performance – dance, music, theatre and a place to interact – meet old friends and make new ones – whilst taking part in all kinds of activities. Thus the program of event-based Saturdays began in January. With huge buy-in from the community, both as visitors and contributors, and the need to drive more footfall for the new projects, late Thursdays were launched in April.

What all of these youth projects had in common was:

  • The energy and enthusiasm of the young people involved.  Another re-buff to the media image of students as moody, ungrateful and reckless! On this project I have met some incredibly bright, upbeat young people that have been appreciative of the opportunities that this has offered them and they have been the most responsible tenants!
  • They were prepared to take risks and step in the unknown – an opportunity that is not offered to them in the formal educational structure.  With my background steeped in innovation, we have been clear that this project does not know failure – only learning opportunities.  I have found that with this approach and a lack of formal structure, people have been able to unleash their true creativity in a safe environment.
  • They use social media like they were brought up with it (well they almost were) and are incredibly good at activating their networks to drive visitors to their projects, which also benefits the overall market project. They also use more traditional media, creating posters and some going out and about flyering the local area and their colleges.  Many also attracted press to their projects.
  • They also showed a strong social mindedness, wanting to be part of this larger project to re-establish the market, often forming strong relationships with other traders and taking part in overall market activities.

This is a showcase of what happens when Digital Youth are given a real life opportunity.

1. Write by Numbers – Ovid Reworked

A young collective of writers, actors and designers brought the first theatre project to the market in an open fronted unit. They challenge young writers, performers and theatre makers to experiment with all the ways it is possible to make, create and produce theatre. This was their first production as a group; they attracted over 300 people in 2 weeks and and media attention including an article in The Sunday Times. They achieved this not only through sheer hard work, but effective use of social media, online project documentation, the ability to engage their networks and to bring in locals by promoting out and about with flyers.   Spring-boarding from this success, they continue to put on productions and are now recruiting for project managers!

2. Ash Finch – a 2nd Year photography student from London South Bank University

Ash carried out his work placement in the early months of the project and his photographs were published by Time Out and the Sunday Times.

“…I learnt first hand how organisations such as Space Makers rely on networking and teamwork to produce the end results such as Brixton Village. I think  that more work goes into organising sites such as these than people realise. Also photography wise the project gave me the national exposure of having my work printed which was a great opportunity, and also the knowledge that my images where helping the community and local business by hopefully attracting more trade and visitors to the site, emphasising what a powerful tool photography can be…”
3. Market Stall Trading Experience, YE London

Over 2 weeks, approximately 25 young people from Lambeth participated in a 4 day course delivered by Young Enterprise London to learn the basics of setting up and running a business.  They learned about everything from marketing and branding to product development and budgeting.  Each group designed and made key rings and the course culminated with an opportunity to sell their products to members of the public at Brixton Village Market.
“…We had a very successful time, with both teams selling all their stock within an hour and a half of arrival. The young people learned a lot about customer services and sales techniques and definitely seemed to enjoy the experience…” Rosalind Moody from Young Enterprise London.

4. Work Experience, London Creative Labs

Rashida and her brother Hassan, were introduced to the project by Sofia Bustamente of London Creative Labs.  Sofia works in Brixton with the objective of job creation – by the community and for the community. She finds dis-enfranchised people and helps them work on their bigger dreams working through practical steps to get them there. So she set up work placements with Sweet Tooth, the sweet shop, and Cornercopia, a locally sourced restaurant/deli. This enabled both the siblings to build on their CV and find jobs using what they learned about customer service and retail.

5. Wake Up Campaign – Viviane Williams, a student from Goldsmiths.

“…Being given the opportunity to have a pop up in Brixton Village Market has allowed me to test my ideas/vision to the public, this has been rewarding, insightful and has given me more confidence to take risks, a true entrepreneurial attribute to test for a viable venture. By testing my vision, I have interacted with the local community and have formed great relationships. Through this, I have developed my social enterprise ‘Wakeup campaign‘ – stimulating people’s consciousness with the power of design such as role play – in this case as African Kings and Queens – to help bring social change. I have now won a few awards on behalf of the business and I feel this would have not been achievable without the platform of showcasing the idea in Brixton Village Market’…”  Viviane Williams.

6. Camberwell Arts College Students

Artinavan were the first group in – they had been one of the successful applicants for the initial 3 months rent free. Artinavan ran a series of incredible exhibitions that changed every few weeks.  Positioned at a busy junction in the market surrounded by grocers, fishmongers and meat stalls, they played a key role in connecting the new projects with the existing traders in the market through their creative work.

One of my favourite stories is the photo booth that they set up where they printed out about 2 foot high worth of photos of the traders and market visitors that they had taken during that particular activity and within 3 weeks, there were only a handful of photos left.  It gave me a clear indication that all of those people had returned to the market and collected their photo.  This is the story that I tell to show that a large number of people that visit the market enjoy the experience so much that they come back.  They further showed how photographs can play a significant role in breaking down barriers and starting conversations.

I do encourage you to look at their blog that shows film, photographs and explanations of the projects.  They also received coverage in The Independent.  They were something really special.  Here is what Sean Andre Millington has said about his time: “‘…On our many variations on using the space that was offered to us in Brixton village market allowed the the collective to really explore the possibilities of producing art without the permissible pressures that are ever imposed within the art world, we were able to produce and present art that directly engaged with the vibrancy of the area and the freedom to create beyond the white walls of a gallery. We were able to view the nature of our interactive installations engage with the whole market, where the whole of the market became the gallery and our shop a painting hanging on its wall…”

Comic Assault – Charlie Cameron

Following Artinavan’s  success, we have had a series of Camberwell Student projects including Comic Assault, where a group of arts students produced and sold their Comic. It was part of their course syllabus to set up an event outside of the college. “…Setting up the show to having the opening night it has given us a huge confidence boost to go out and do more of the same…”

Alter Ego, Philippe Fenner

An exhibition created by the 2nd year Camberwell Illustration group - www.alteregodraw.com. This exhibition exclusively comprised work by the public and not just art students.  It is a ‘live exhibition’ as the entrance fee was visitors drawing their alter ego.

“…Our show at the Brixton Village had a perfect setting. We found that there is a dormant inner creative force behind everyone’s exteriors and that the passion for drawing does not die at the age of ten, it is merely subdued until a project like our own released it, if only for five minutes. We experienced a show that we’d always wanted to see; un-snobbish, approachable, fun and full of unlikely heroes; from enforcers of southbank patrol creating existential mind-maps to East-End club owners with pink hats drawing themselves how they’d like to be seen. We experienced also a show that would not have been possible if the group hadn’t created a cohesive idea which all of us had an input in…”

7. Baytree Centre

Local charity, The Baytree Centre, got the forecourt dancing one Thursday afternoon with their 8 – 13 year old dance troop. They presented some routines and workouts to passersby and encouraged everyone to join in. The Baytree Centre is 5 minute walk from the market. This was the upshot of my just turning up for an uninvited chat!

“…The girls love to perform and being able to involve onlookers and teach them what they’ve been learning made it extra special. The girls got to share what they learnt and demonstrate their talent in an informal and friendly environment…”  Suzy Holloway

Closing Comments

In this post I have attempted to show how young people will pro-actively take up opportunities that we can offer them to gain real life learning experiences and how they use them to build up their own portfolio.  It gives more fodder to challenge the negative media perception of teens and students. You can see how they use social media effectively to mobilise and extend their networks.  I hope that it encourages you to create platforms for young people to engage with your projects and how doing so can also benefit your project and business objectives.

Thanks to Andy Broomfield and Ash Finch for the majority of the photos!